the artistry and psychology of gaming




Welcome to Gaming on the House; don’t look down and and mind your step! Each week, we’ll be climbing the rooftops of the gaming industry to seek out great experiences that everyone can track down and play, and the best part is they’ll all be free! That’s right; FREE! Gratis. Comp’d. Unbound. Unrestricted. Zero-down. On the House!… we talk about free games here, is my point.

Many may be surprised at how many fantastic games are really out there that everyone can legally enjoy with no monetary commitment. Taking together all the flash and browser games, freeware downloads from the independent scene, speed programming archives, free-to-play business modules, and even promotional re-releases from big name publishers, there’s a never ending supply of great games new and old waiting to be played, and it’s our goal to play them all! So, if you’re strapped for cash or just waiting around for that next big release to hit retail, why not give these games a try? After all, they’re free; what have you got to lose!

This week’s game features some very small characters, but also some pretty big concepts as well.


Microscopic organisms have much on their minds…er, cells

Genre: Microscopic Life Simulation
Link to Game:
Game Info: Released as freeware in 2006 by Jenova Chen as part of his master’s thesis, and later developed for the PS3 by Chen’s development studio Thatgamecompany in 2007 (and also brought to the PSP in 2008 by SuperVillain Studios).

Flow is a game that is fairly simplistic in both concept and execution, perhaps best described as an “art house” game. Within the game, the player is tasked with navigating a series of stacked 2D aquatic planes, diving deeper and deeper as you progress. On these planes you will find several types of creatures, some peaceful, and some hostile, and all can be consumed or defeated by the player’s organism, which will in turn cause that organism to grow.

There are several fine-tuned instructions that I could also give with regards to navigation between planes, as well as battle strategy and techniques (I should perhaps mention that you can click to speed up your character…that one evaded me for a while), however I feel that the bulk of the gameplay is best left to be revealed gradually as the player progresses. Instead, I’d like to take a little time to acknowledge two concepts that were under consideration as the game was being developed (it was the result of a master’s thesis in interactive media after all), and look at how exactly the game stacks up against them. The first concept is one of game design, while the second is a product of psychology.

Predator organisms will send you back a level, but you can fight back by chomping their lighty things.

Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (DDA)

Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment (also known as dynamic game balancing, or dynamic game difficulty balancing), is the process of allowing the level of challenge or difficulty presented to the player to be adjusted in-game based on that player’s ability or skill level. The goal of DDA is to allow the game to maintain the interest of the player, often using their measured abilities or stats to determine an appropriate level of challenge without becoming to tedious or frustrating.

DDA has been implemented in a variety of ways. Mario Kart Wii, for example, scales the distribution of its items based on the player’s ranking within the race, giving more speed boost opportunities to those at the back of the pack. Left 4 Dead, to cite another example, features an “AI Director” which measures player statistics (kills, hit ratio, deaths, etc.) to determine the number of zombies on hand and adjusts the visuals and music to add elements of tension.

Within Flow, however, DDA is achieved not through measuring performance levels, but is adjusted subconsciously by the player. DDA was in fact the subject of Chen’s thesis, calling for DDA to be embedded within the game design itself, rather than being passive and reactionary to the player. This allows for the player to be in control, and free to do as they please without concerns of how their actions will affect the game to come. In order to achieve this form of DDA (referred to by Chen as Embedded Difficulty Adjustment, or EDA) in Flow, the player is left with a series of options, despite the game featuring a limited amount of gameplay. Players can move quickly through the levels, or take their time. They can choose to fight enemies, or evade them. Depending on how they attempt to play, they craft their own unique experience as they move from plane to plane, and their choices become reflected in the final build of their organism. This allows for a greater immersion into the game world at play, which also leads us into our next concept.

Flow (mental state)

The concept of Flow was first identified by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in the 1960’s, where he studied the psychological phenomenon of artists who became completely immersed in their work, often negating basic physical needs in the process (water, sleep, etc). Examples of Flow, however, can also be found dating back to ancient cultures. Flow experiences have been identified in many areas of life, from music and the arts, to sports, to religious ceremonies, to internet browsing, to business and work ethics… and of course, it is a driving force in video games.

So what is Flow? Flow is a specific mental state that offers a type of forced motivation, or a complete immersion within a specific subject matter in which the participant is driven to achieve the success of the activity at hand. Have you ever heard someone say “Get your head in the game?,” or “I’m in the zone!” when completing a task? They’re talking about flow!

To break down what goes into Flow the concept, and more specifically, what goes into Flow the game, we can look at the three identified conditions required for Flow to be achieved. Just to warn you, if you haven’t played the game yet, I would refrain from reading the below until after the fact, as certain components when pointed out may unwillingly detract from the flow state.

First, we need a set of clear goals, adding a level of structure to the task. Flow achieves this through natural progression. On the first plane, nothing exists that you can interact with besides the black dot organism (and if it’s offscreen, it “pings” a microbial sonar to indicate it’s position). Once you eat the black dot organism you are moved to the plane in the background, where you are greeted with another black dot, and now a similar organism with a white dot. Eating the white dot sends you back where you were, while the black dot continues further down, with the background color getting darker in the progress. Taken all together, the player has unlocked the goal of progressing through the game through the visual stimulation provided. Flow Component #1: check!

Second, Flow requires a balance between the participant’s understanding or perception of both the challenges ahead and their own skill level. This is achieved in Flow as the player begins to interact with the world presented to them as they progress; first greeted with smaller organisms the player can consume, and eventually other consuming organisms and predator organisms. In interacting with each of these, the player begins to understand their place in the world (in this case, a microscopic food chain) and their own abilities in relation to it. All the while, the upcoming challenges (the next plane) are presented in the background giving the player an idea of what to expect next once they reach their current area’s black dot organism. Flow Component #2: Double check!

Finally, the task at hand must have an identifiable level of feedback, cluing in the participant to their level of performance based on their interactions. This is, of course present as well within Flow, identified by the player’s character, which grows upon consuming the other organisms, and gets smaller when attacked by enemy organisms (fights essentially boil down to stealing light orbs from each other, although you can never completely run out yourself). In defeating enemies, further extras are given (sometimes you get stick wings) adding some visual flare to your snake like character and providing reward for their performance. Flow Component #3: Check, and that’s all she wrote!

Making it all the way to the bottom will let you play again as a predator jellyfish. Yeah!

So, from the above, we see that the stage is set within the game to enable the flow experience, but was it effective? I would say yes, but that’s something each individual needs to determine for themselves. To do so, I propose a test!

Here are Csíkszentmihályi’s ten identified accompanying factors of Flow (shamelessly taken with thanks from Wikipedia):

  1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
  2. Concentrating, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
  3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.
  4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
  5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
  6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
  7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
  8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
  9. A lack of awareness of bodily needs (to the extent that one can reach a point of great hunger or fatigue without realizing it)
  10. Absorption into the activity, narrowing of the focus of awareness down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.

Not all are needed to enable Flow, but after playing through, how many of the above were you able to experience or connect with during the game? I got 8 out of 10 (although I had recently eaten a sandwich, so I can’t fully account for #9).

Flow (we’re talking about the game again) has been a critical darling ever since it’s release, winning “Best Downloadable Game” at the 2008 Game Developers Choice Awards, and receiving several award nominations for innovation and for its music. It’s PS3 release was the most downloaded game in 2007. Flow was also a finalist at the 2007 Slamdance Guerrilla Games Competition, however in a very “punk rock” move, the game (along with Braid, Castle Crashers, and a few others) withdrew in support of Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, which was initially nominated but pulled from the competition. Recently it was selected as one of the 80 games to be showcased in “The Art of Video Games” exhibit coming to the Smithsonian Institute in 2012. While the gameplay itself isn’t really anything too special, the game’s ultimate premise is one that fundamentally links all video games together in its purest form, and the stimulating environment contained within is a fantastic interactive work of art that begs to be experienced at least once.

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